Sitting at Azimuth, the chefs studio at Blue Frog Delhi, I recently realised that some of the big trends that we have been talking about globally are making their way quietly into Indian restaurant kitchens as well. One of the highlights of the contemporary menu at the studio is bael (woodapple) soup that comes up as a cold appetiser to be spooned up in some very chic crockery. Bael was once the staple of Indian homes and streets during summer, as season specials.
The resurgence of traditional ingredients is a noteworthy trend in all the dining capitals of the world, what with greater emphasis now being paid to artisanal, slow foods and health diktats prompting consumers away from assembly-line, fast or obviously restaurantised stuff. Grass-fed meat, for instance, reared by small farmers is prized in the snobbiest of restaurants above mass-produced ingredients seen (sometimes rightly) as more unhealthy. Salt, too, is the it ingredient currently but not factory-made; strictly natural and gourmetaka the Himalayan rock salt that we in India used to have in our kitchens till the generic stuff took over, or Black Hawaiian sea salt and so on. And ancient grains that had lost their supremacy to refined flour and polished white rice are all making a comeback as gourmet ingredients used by the best chefseven in India. Look at your menus carefully the next time you eat out at a fancy restaurant and you may just find some of these ancient ingredients contemporarised.
Woodapple Or bael: It is one of the most ancient of fruits native to India. In Hindu mythology, it is a favourite of Shiva; in Ayurveda, a cure for snakebite amongst other things and generally supposed to be great for digestion, curing ulcers and deemed good for the stomach during summer. Restaurants have been aggressively rediscovering it this season in their homemade sherbets and soups, even if homes have forgotten to stock up on this!
Licorice: I dont know of anyone who really likes the taste of licoriceexcept perhaps in Finland where it is one of the most adored national ingredients and chefs are concocting strange recipes, such as licorice-flavoured salmon from two of their most traditional ingredients! But even without such experimentation, mulethi, as we know it in India (in Ayurveda, it has a host of medicinal properties too), has been gaining ground in almost every modern restaurant kitchen as a prized ingredient. Typically used as a flavouring for sweets, it is now used in both desserts and sauces.
Mastiha: I havent come across this one in India yet, but this is one of the newest big ingredients to capture the attentions of chefs. A Greek resin, mastiha (or mastika) is known as the ancient chewing gum! It is related to the pistachio family and typically used to spice up baked goodies in Greek and Middle-Eastern cooking, apart from medicinal use. But now, it is enjoying a huge comeback in America and Europe, used as an ingredient in everything from ice-cream to bread. Look for it the next time you travel and eat out.
Amaranth: We know it as ramdana in Hindi and if it still does not ring a bell in your mind, try remembering those laddoos and pattis made of this stuff that you used to eat in winter. The high-protein grain is amongst the trendiest ingredients today, made typically into bread. But it is not just the seeds that are sought after by experimental chefs. Instead, amaranth greens (bathua, in Hindi) are also decorating gourmet tables in pastas, with meats and so forth as a substitute for spinach.
Ancient grains: With gluten-free diets becoming trendy even with those who do not have celiac disease, ancient grains like farro and spelt from Italy, buckwheat, jowar and barley that we know in India and quinoa from the middle-east are all enjoying a huge renaissance in the world of gastronomy. Farro, for instance, an ancient Roman grain, is now a credible substitute for pasta, and also used in soups and salads. You would have seen many of the other grains, if not entirely substituting wheat, then being toasted and served up on breads and salads. It is high time that we learnt to enjoy them, once again.
The writer is a food critic